|The downtown courthouse, with its grand muraled rotunda, is just around a corner from a dingy Rikers Island interrogation cell, where Assistant District Attorneys Jack McCoy and Abbie Carmichael are confronting a plea bargainer.|
In this unique little corner of New York -- actually, a floor of a building in Manhattan's Chelsea Piers complex -- nobody needs cabs, subways, or patrol cars to get around. The city's entire criminal justice system is under one roof.
Just a brisk jog from the jail, on the north side of the studio space on another recent day, Detectives Lennie Briscoe and Rey Curtis gingerly grill a hospitalized crime victim with a hideously jagged facial scar. Her room is only a stone's throw from that all-too-familiar city morgue -- into which crew members are carting comically large trays of bones.
It's a good place to begin this autopsy of TV's most amazing, convention-defying hit series and its longest-running current drama.
Great shows generally start to lose steam after a few years. But in its ninth season, "Law and Order" -- which specializes in ripped-from-the-headline stories, with a twist -- is still first-rate. In the fall of 1997 -- already an old-timer in TV years -- the show won the Emmy as best drama series.
And, contrary to the usual trajectory, its ratings have risen from season to season.
What makes "Law and Order" so different and unique?
The cast and crew point to a constellation of factors -- format, location, writing, producing, acting, chemistry. Their "well-oiled machine" (one staffer's words) operates on an unusual bicoastal system. Executive producer Ed Sherin and most of the staff is in New York, while executive producer-head writer Rene Balcer and his crew are based in Los Angeles (along with creator-executive producer Dick Wolf), but regularly pay visits to the set.
Some even suggest that "L&O" has benefited from the unusually high onscreen turnover: Nobody from the pilot is still around. (Steven Hill joined in episode one.)
"I think it's the cast changes from year to year that actually keep the show fresh," says Benjamin Bratt, who plays Curtis.
When Bratt came aboard in the fall of 1995, replacing Chris Noth, an original cast member "who was one of the favorite characters," he sensed that audiences were not happy about the change.
"What I came to find out rather quickly was ... people just saw it as a bump in the road. Clearly, the star of the show is not any one actor, but the group of actors, and, more importantly, the stories that are told, and the form that IS the show."
Through the years, "L&O" has, in fact, survived the loss of many fine characters -- prosecutors Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty), Paul Robinette (Richard Brooks), Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy), and Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell), as well as Capt. John Cragen (Dann Florek), and Detectives Max Greevey (George Dzundza), Phil Cerretta (Paul Sorvino), and Noth's Mike Logan (who gets his own, Wolf-produced follow-up movie, "Exiled," this weekend).
"In all candor, there have been mistakes made in replacing people who never should have been replaced, and also, there have been certain replacements that benefited the show," says Hill, who plays District Attorney Adam Schiff.
But, he adds, with every change, "you get a whole new set of reactions, emotions, personality, and you respond to that in turn."
Watching the current cast and crew rehearse and film, it's clear that they're a dedicated, cooperative, and simpatico group.
Bratt calls Jerry Orbach, who plays his inimitable partner, Briscoe, "a friend, a gentle man, and the consummate professional."
Orbach, in turn, says, "Ben and I have a terrific chemistry, a different chemistry than what I had with Chris, who was closer in age. With Ben, it's more of a father and son thing."
Everyone seems genuinely enthusiastic about the newest "L&O" addition -- 26-year-old model-turned-actress Angie Harmon ("Baywatch Nights," "C-16"), who came on board this fall as the aggressive, headstrong, conservative Carmichael.
"Angie was cast very late in the day, and she showed a tremendous amount of guts, because there was no opportunity to get acclimated," says Sam Waterston, who plays McCoy. "She came in with a very strong character, she got right behind it, and she's brought it off in a big way. Everybody's had to think anew, and wake up, and it's very good."
Sherin, a former Broadway director and producer, says that he and Wolf auditioned 120 actresses for the role. The "L&O" strategy is to replace a character with someone completely different, so they were looking for an actress unlike Lowell (who left in May).
Mostly, they wanted somebody with "an independent spirit who could hold up her end with McCoy," says Sherin, who was at first incredulous that "someone who looked as beautiful as Angie, and was so polite and
agreeable, could be so formidable."
He was soon convinced otherwise. "Angie knows what she wants. She has a natural grace, an incisive intellect," he says. "She's also an extraordinarily beautiful woman. She looks like one of the great Greek actresses. She has those burning dark eyes that stare -- and that's formidable."
Besides bringing to the show what Sherin calls a "very driven conservative bent" (Carmichael is not only pro-death penalty but "pro-life," he says), the quick-witted character introduces a "lightheartedness," Harmon believes.
Like the actress, Carmichael is a Texan. "They added that when I came aboard, 'cause apparently, I have an accent," Harmon, a Dallas native, says with a laugh. "But basically, her personality came from them. She's very headstrong. She's used to working on her own and not answering to anybody."
McCoy, meanwhile, is used to barking orders, but when he tries that with Carmichael, "she's like, 'What, your phone doesn't work?' That's a lot of fun to play and a lot of fun to watch," Harmon says. "But they have the same goal. They're trying to put away vermin."
As Bratt suggested, another key to the success of "L&O" is its distinctive format.
In the late Eighties, the prevailing wisdom was that dramas didn't syndicate well. Wolf thought that an hour-long series that could be divided into 30-minute halves -- the first devoted to the solving of cases, the second to their prosecution -- would be an easier sell.
To accommodate the entire criminal justice process, "Law and Order" (which bowed Oct. 30, 1990) goes at a fast pace, and seriously compresses time.
The dialogue is pared, and -- although there was some experimentation with this last season -- little attention is paid to the characters' off-duty hours.
"I've always been a big fan of the central theme of the series, which is what it's like to be at work, and the unforgiving nature of that," says Waterston, adding that there are merely hints that "there is a life going on ... that's not being paid attention to." (Last season, his McCoy seemed to be "hitting the bottle quite a bit," but then "very tangentially, he stopped.")
Orbach, however, concedes that the drama's "'Dragnet' kind of quality" can be constraining.
"It's a lot more fun for actors to cry and rant and rave, or have a drug problem or a drinking problem," Orbach says. "Once in a while, I get jealous of people who get to do real histrionics. But that's all right. That stuff's only about awards. It's not about people watching. People are very loyal to our show and they want to see the case resolved in an hour."
Everyone agrees that the series' shooting location is a big factor in its success. Whereas the Hollywood-based "NYPD Blue" occasionally comes East for exterior shots, "L&O" is filmed entirely in New York -- at Chelsea Piers and all over the city streets.
"The atmosphere of New York can't be duplicated anywhere," Hill says. "The show has its own original taste and smell and feel, and people get a big kick out of that."
Says Waterston, "The city of New York is a major character in the show."